Norm-Referenced Achievement Tests (page 2)

— National Center for Fair and Open Testing
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

How accurate is that test score?

The items on the test are only a sample of the whole subject area. There are often thousands of questions that could be asked, but tests may have just a few dozen questions. A test score is therefore an estimate of how well the student would do if she could be asked all the possible questions.

All tests have "measurement error." No test is perfectly reliable. A score that appears as an absolute number -- say, Jamal's 63 -- really is an estimate. For example, Jamal's "true score" is probably between 56 and 70, but it could be even further off. Sometimes results are reported in "score bands," which show the range within which a test-takers' "true score" probably lies.

There are many other possible causes of measurement error. A student can be having a bad day. Test-taking conditions often are not the same from place to place (they are not adequately "standardized"). Different versions of the same test are in fact not quite exactly the same.

Sub-scores on tests are even less precise. This is mostly because there are often very few items on the sub-test. A score band for a Juanita's math sub-test might show that her score is between the 33rd and 99th percentile because only a handful of questions were asked.

Scores for young children are much less reliable than for older students. This is because young children's moods and attention are more variable. Also, young children develop quickly and unevenly, so even an accurate score today could be wrong next month.

What do score increases mean?

If your child's or your school's score goes up on a norm-referenced test, does that mean she knows more or the school is better? Maybe yes, maybe not. Schools cannot teach everything. They teach some facts, some procedures, some concepts, some skills -- but not others. Often, schools focus most on what is tested and stop teaching many things that are not tested. When scores go up, it does not mean the students know more, it means they know more of what is on that test.

For example, history achievement test "A" could have a question on Bacon's Rebellion (a rebellion by Black slaves and White indentured servants against the plantation owners in colonial Virginia). Once teachers know Bacon's Rebellion is covered on the exam, they are more likely to teach about it. But if those same students are given history test "B," which does not ask about Bacon's Rebellion but does ask about Shay's Rebellion, which the teacher has not taught, the students will not score as well.

Teaching to the test explains why scores usually go down when a new test is used. A district or state usually uses an NRT for five to ten years. Each year, the score goes up as teachers become familiar with what is on the test. When a new test is used, the scores suddenly drop. The students don't know less, it is just that different things are now being tested.

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